Stairway to Heaven
We climb through shale and scree toward a cathedral-shaped butte called Arhat Yenlagjung by Buddhists, and “Nandi”—after Shiva’s bull—by Hindu pilgrims. Beyond soars the sheer, striated wall of Kailash. By mid-afternoon we reach Sheldra, overlooking a talus-filled amphitheater known as the Golden Basin. This is the beginning of the nangkor, the legendary inner circuit. An avalanche of snow plummets through a deep vertical cleft in Kailash’s south face, scaring the horizontal strata of the mountain. It was called “Stairway to Heaven” long before Led Zeppelin was a gleam in the eye of the universe.
Surrounded by barren brown formations of odd and evocative shapes that morph into demons in the minds of oxygen-deprived devotees, the “Precious Snow Mountain” stands alone and aloof. Its smooth black wall ascends to a white crown, a slightly bulging pyramid. Plumes of snow dance in the wind from its summit, and ice crystals tumble like granular sugar through its funneling vertical rift onto the treacherous nangkor route. A rough unmarked trail climbs to 19,000 feet at Serdung Chuksum La—or Pass of the Thirteen Golden Stupas—then descends precipitously to Kapala Tso and Kavala Tso, two tiny glacial lakes on Arhat Yenlagjung’s eastern slope. Passage is often obstructed by troublesome dakini—female mountain spirits—and the frequent avalanches of rock and ice they send tumbling down the “Stairway” to chasten arrogant interlopers.